Editorial: Just say no to expanded drug war

The Detroit News

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reverting to a tried-and-failed tactic for combating drug use and trafficking: If a war bogs down, escalate.

It’s a temptation America has succumbed to for 40 years. The idea that harsher penalties and more vigorous law enforcement will deter the population from buying and selling illegal drugs makes sense in theory, but has been a miserable failure in application.

Last week, Sessions sent a memo to federal prosecutors nationwide telling them to charge defendants in drug cases with the most serious crimes allowable under the law.

That reversed the Obama administration practice of not seeking the mandatory minimum sentences in most cases. The more lenient policy did not apply to gang members or repeat offenders.

Sessions’ action signals a return to the mindset that all it takes to prevail over the scourge of drugs is more aggressive law enforcement.

That was the approach, before President Obama changed direction, for a long time. And it didn’t work.

Drug use continued unfazed no matter how much more firepower federal and state governments brought to the battle.

All policies such as the one Sessions advocates accomplish is filling the nation’s prison cells, breaking apart families and wrecking communities.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, got it right in criticizing that approach.

“We should be treating our nation’s drug epidemic for what it is — a public health crisis, not an excuse to send people to prison and turn a mistake into a tragedy,” Rand said in an op-ed for CNN. “This isn’t about legalizing drugs. It is about making the punishment more fitting and not ruining more lives.”

That’s what ardent drug warriors like Sessions don’t get. Harsher criminal sentences will not keep people from their vices.

Federal and state efforts in the drug war cost $80 billion a year. What’s that money buying? Not much in terms of deterrence.

Since 2002, the number of Americans using drugs has risen to 9.4 percent of the population from 8.3 percent. The climb continued through eras of both intense and more relaxed law enforcement.

Nearly 1 in 10 Americans using drugs would seem alarming. But break the number down and the overwhelming drug of choice is marijuana, which is now legal in some form in many states, including Michigan, where it is permitted for medicinal purposes.

Pot is followed by prescription drugs, a problem that requires a solution that goes well beyond cops and courts.

After that, just about 3 percent of Americans use a serious narcotic such as cocaine or heroin that is involved in the illegal drug trade.

More people are getting high off inhalants derived from common household products than from heroin, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

And as difficult as it is for the hard liners to accept, not everyone who uses drugs recreationally is an addict. That’s particularly true of pot users.

As the lines between legal and illegal marijuana use blur, federal policies must evolve.

The nation at last needs a rational drug policy that focuses on cutting demand by getting help to those who abuse drugs. We know from experience that what Sessions is implementing won’t work.